How to Buy Camping Gear for Cheap
I put my camping gear together for about $330. I won’t pretend like that’s not a significant amount of money because it is. But that money was an investment that now allows me to romp around the mountains for next to nada.
Because I like to backcountry camp, I bought minimal, lightweight gear. Interestingly, gear that is so light that it barely exists is actually pretty expensive—“ultralight” gear supposedly uses better technology and materials (me=rolling eyes). Still, I think having a light pack is important for backcountry camping; a too-heavy pack will kill your buzz faster than seeing your Ex across the bar saddled up with some hot new chick. Good news for Dumpster Doggies: The less you have, the better!
All of my gear works for car camping (also called drive-up camping) as well, but folks that are strictly car campers usually like more extravagant stuff—I’ve seen plenty of set-ups at walk-up campsites to rival the ancient kingdom of Thebes. This makes sense, ’cause you’re spending multiple days in one spot. Think stovetops, tents tall enough to stand in, lounge chairs, games, real-deal inflatable mattresses, etc. This is fine if it’s what you like, but does require more moola.
Today, I’ll show you how to find cheap camping gear specifically for backpacking. First, some advice:
Keep It Simple
Like I mentioned in my blog post about adventuring for cheap, you don’t need every piece of gear on display in an REI. Their displays feature the fun stuff, but frankly, you don’t need anything fun. The gear isn’t supposed to be the fun part.
You need a roof over your head, something to sleep on and in, safety gear, and a way to cook your food. (And even then, you can do an overnight hike without cooking. Just eat snacks for meals. You’ll do that for lunch anyway. Bars, nuts, whiskey/bagged wine, and peanut butter and jelly are more than enough. People have lived on far worse/less.)
I’ve included my full backpacking checklist at the end of the post.
Borrow or Rent Before You Buy!
I totally recommend borrowing gear and testing out whether you even like backcountry camping before you buy a bunch of shit. Everyone knows someone that’s real fuckin’ amped on camping these days; convince them to take you, teach you, and/or let you borrow their stuff. Outdoorsy people love to be know-it-alls; take advantage of this.
I’ve been lucky to have a cohort in my adventures, my best bud, Alexis (Flex). Flex and I split some of the camping gear duties, which makes it much more affordable. When Flex can’t come with me, I just borrow what I need (or make do without). Start a “gear circle” with some like-minded homeys—you each buy a few things and go together, or borrow from each other.
If you live in a city, there’s somewhere that you can rent gear. I’ve had great success renting; when I traveled in South America, I rented from outfitters and even hostels when needed (for me, in Patagonia and Peru) instead of carrying camping gear with me everywhere I went. If you don’t have rental options in your town, check wherever you’re headed. My friend Nola recently rented trekking poles for a whoppin’ five dollars at a mountain shop stationed near our hike’s trailhead.
Google search “camping rentals (your city)” and poke around. Universities often have great rental programs run out of their recreation centers. Some REIs rent gear, as do other private outdoor gear retailers. Outdoor institutes are another good place to check. I’ve never used it, but Lowergear is an online rental company, kind of like the Rent the Runway of camping gear.
If you are a family or know of a family that is struggling to get outdoors because of the cost of acquiring camping gear, nonprofits like Outdoors Empowered offer free rental libraries and training programs for kids and teens.
Give Yourself Time
If you wait until two weeks before you go camping to buy your gear, you’re guaranteed to pay full price for everything. Just as it works for every single thing in the history of time (overdue bills, dresses for formal events, etc.), you will have to throw money at the problem if you wait until too late to get your shit together.
Start pluckin’ up one or two good finds up per month, especially during off-season months. Without further ado:
Where to Shop For Cheap
I bought all of my gear between REI Garage Sales and Craigslist, but those aren’t your only options.
REI Garage Sale:
Ever heard the rumors about REI Garage Sales? They’re true. An REI Garage Sale is a special brand of hell. But, the screamin’ deals you get on solid gear are worth getting elbowed in the eye by some Gore-Tex-clad middle-aged man trying to cut you in line at 7am. (This really happened to me.) People in Portland usually get their jollies from standing politely in line, but passive PDX Pattys can hardly hold onto their good intentions when sick-ass gear deals are involved. Mentally prepare.
REI has a generous return policy, which ultimately benefits us Dumpster Doggies. A few times a year, each REI location will resell returned gear (in good condition) for significantly cheaper than the original price. I went to two Garage Sales and snagged a lightweight tent and sleeping bag for 60% off their full prices. Don’t be scared about returned gear—outdoor people are often just persnickety about their purchases and will return it for silly reasons (and also, because they can). Each item will come with a description of defects, if any, and you can decide whether it’s worth it for the discount.
You do have to be an REI Member to go to Garage Sales, but the $20 lifetime membership is worth it. You’ll get 20% off coupons a few times a year, which are useful for buying gear you won’t often find on sale or used, like water filters and cooking systems. You also get back ~10% of the money you spend in the form of REI bucks. Still not into it? Borrow a buddy’s membership card.
To find the next REI Garage Sale by you, use the store locator and search under Classes and Events. For example, I looked up my store and found that all Oregon REIs will have a Garage Sale on Saturday, August 12th. They start at 9 am but I’d commit to showing up by 7:30 am to get in line. Grab a coffee and bring a book. (Or get caught up on old DD posts!)
I don’t need to tell you how to use Craigslist. Just remember, you gotta be diligent. I purchased my trekking poles and sleeping pad from Craiglist fam for smokin’ deals.
Other cheap gear buying options:
Your friends! Ask around and see if anyone is selling old (but still usable) gear.
In Portland, we have an outdoor store called Next Adventure that sells used camping gear—your city might have something like this, too! Make it a point to stop in periodically.
Geartrade: Looks like some pretty solid deals. Always read descriptions thoroughly (duh).
Cabela’s Bargain Cave: Their discount goodies are both online and in their stores.
Sierra Trading Post Clearance: They’re doing a summer clearance sale as we speak.
What to Pack for Backpacking and What to Wear Hiking
Below, you’ll find my packing list, how much I spent on each item, and the regular price. I did this so you can get an idea of what to pack, but also what kind of savings you can find on this gear.
There’s no need to overthink what you’re going to wear. With backpacking, you only want to bring one change of clothes—what you’ll wear at night. I’ve done 5 and 6-day hikes where I wore the same thing every day. Seems gross, sure, but if you’re carrying food for six days you’ll want exactly zero extra weight. Succumb to nature.
If you work out, just wear your workout clothes. A good pair of hiking shoes, whether boots or trail runners, is an investment you might want to make, although I’ve done plenty of hikes in my Nikes and was just fine. I have a friend that did a 50-mile hike in Birkenstocks. Again, you’ll live. Honestly, wearing a pair of running shoes that you know won’t give you blisters is prolly better than wearing some new, stiff pair of boots that rip apart your feet like they’re a new chew toy.
Homedogs, I’m not necessarily making any product recommendations here. I have no complaints with my stuff, but I also think you should be open to brands (and non-brands), because you never know what you’ll stumble across for a good price! That’s more important than being dead-set on any one brand of anything—at least as you’re getting started.
Also, please know that just because this is how I camp and backpack, it doesn’t mean you have to do it the exact same way. Once your physical safety is accounted for, you can do whatever the hell you want. You could go even more primitive than me, with iodine tablets for your water and an old tin can to cook in. Or maybe you decide that a luxury item or two is worth the extra weight. Maybe you want to forgo the tent altogether and take a hammock and a mosquito net. You do you!
The Dumpster Dog community would love it if you share your favorite tips and tricks for getting gear for cheap! How do you get out into the wilderness without breaking the bank? Share below!